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Will The Power Stay on Now?

Independent audit of Pepco calls for changes.

“The words are fine. Now, we need action,” said County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) about the recently released report about Pepco’s response to Hurricane Isabel.

After a set of storms in late August, and Hurricane Isabel, many of Pepco’s customers were left without power for an extended time. Some Potomac residents were without power — which for those on well water means without running water — for up to a week.

Residents and government officials were upset at the amount of time it took Pepco to get the power flowing again, and at the way they were treated when dealing with the company on the phone.

As a result, Maryland’s Public Service Commission initiated an investigation into Pepco’s response. Pepco also commissioned an outside auditor to report on their response.

The report, prepared by James Lee Witt Associates, cites communication — internally, with customers, and with government — as one of Pepco’s major shortfalls.

“During a significant power outage, communicating the details of restoration efforts with customers — particularly as it relates to their homes, businesses and neighborhoods — becomes the utmost importance. People and government expect, sometimes demand this information and should be provided with it,” states the report.

The report calls for Pepco to better train their employees and to do a better job of communicating to customers the realities of the outage.

“I know that their contact with customers was extremely awful,” said Potomac resident Juan del Castillo. del Castillo was one of many county residents who cited the company for providing incorrect information about when power would be restored after Isabel hit the region in mid-September, and for failing to do enough to prevent repeated outages.

“I thought the report was accurate in highlighting the lack of communication,” Denis said.

However, del Castillo says that communicating would not make people as happy as actually getting the power back on.

“If they tell you the truth, and the truth is something you don’t want to hear, that wouldn’t have brightened your day,” he said.

Pepco says it will begin to make changes. “We felt that all of the recommendations had merit,” said Pepco spokesperson Debbi Jarvis. “This is kind of a blueprint for change.”

One change Pepco is starting is to set up “Community Action Boards” within each of the jurisdictions they serve — Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District of Columbia.

Pepco has identified the people they would like to serve on these committees, but they have yet to meet, said Jarvis.

Changes like these might not be enough for some. “Clearly we’re going to see that we have to have a change in the culture,” Denis said

“I recoil in horror from the words, ‘reach out to,’” del Castillo said. He is not optimistic that the report will effect any change.

Since the report holds no force of law, Pepco can choose to do all or none of what the Witt report suggests. “Let’s hope this doesn’t just end up on the shelf,” Denis said.

Jarvis says Pepco has started to implement some changes, but that it may take as long as five years to implement all of Witt’s suggestions.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is also studying Pepco’s response to Isabel. The Commission can force Pepco to do things differently, but the report is not due out for several more months.